Wickford Diner (Wickford, RI)

Fiasco: noun

1. An Italian squat, round-bottomed, straw-covered bottle, usually containing wine from the chianti region
2. A mishap in which the normal realm of human error, fumble, mishap and mistake gives way to a complete breakdown of order

My experience at the Wickford Diner was a complete fiasco (in the second sense above), but the resulting comedy of errors was so entertaining that I just had to tell other people about it. This isn’t really a complaint, since in the end the humor of the situation greatly outweighed any of the inconvenience.

This Memorial Day, I found myself in Wickford, RI, immediately before the morning’s Memorial Day Parade. Carol and I were hungry for a little breakfast (our earlier efforts at Allie’s Donuts failed, due to Allie’s being closed for the holiday), but the Wickford Diner was open.

I’ve been to the Wickford Diner several times before in the last umpteen years (previously in 2001, 1996, and probably sometime before that), with pleasant memories of the basic staples of RI cuisine: corncakes and chowder.

The Wickford Diner has had a number of changes from my early visits: the place has been heavily renovated, and now includes a large seating area from the adjacent building. The menu has been simplified to basic breakfast fare (I no longer could find corncakes on the menu, for example). But the overall environment looked nice and the smells emanating from the kitchen were pleasant. So we took a seat and decided to give it a try.

It quickly became obvious that something wasn’t quite right that morning, since several minutes passed before we got menus and drink orders. Several other tables were still obviously awaiting either menus or food, and several other tables weren’t bussed. After a few minutes of observation, it became obvious why: only two people were working the restaurant (one waiting, one cooking).

Our suspicions were confirmed when several minutes later, the waiter rushed over with menus, and apologetically explained that normally there would be several more people working there, but that two had quit in the last 24 hours, and he himself had been on the job for only a few weeks. He then quickly took our orders, apologized again, rushed the order to the kitchen, and started another quick round of the patrons to try and get caught up with orders, bills, coffee, waiting, and busing.

Unfortunately, due to the Memorial Day parade starting in an hour, there were a lot more people coming into the Diner than normal for a Monday morning, and you could see the already-existing backlog of work getting worse.

Like the famous Lucy skit in which she’s decorating and boxing cakes coming off the assembly line, you could see the breakdown coming: People could no longer find clean tables at which to sit. The waiter was running out of menus since everyone still had their menus while waiting to order. The kitchen was backing up since the single waiter couldn’t deliver the food to the tables quickly enough. The coffee was running out, and a series of empty OJ bottles was building up at the waiter’s station. Nobody was getting their bills settled since the waiter was busy with the above. Oh, and the register was out of small bills anyways.

Now, I’ve seen enough well-run restaurants to know that an experienced staff probably could’ve kept the place running decently with just two people, but this waiter in particular just wasn’t experienced enough (I’m not faulting him, he was new there, and obviously trying his best.)

The funny thing is, everyone seemed to be in a pretty good mood about it. It was a holiday, everyone was in a basically good mood, and wanted things to work out. That, and due to traffic being blocked off, none of us were going anywhere until after the parade, anyways, so we might as well make the best of things.

So, as the situation in the kitchen became more and more dire, it was actually kind of entertaining to watch events collapse on themselves. To borrow a phrase from theater, the Fourth Wall was broken, and people all of a sudden decided that a successful breakfast was going to require everyone to break their roles. One woman starting busing tables. Another woman started topping off coffee. I found the coffee cups, started delivering coffee to people still waiting for their coffee, and made a new pot (I didn’t find the cream, so another woman was happily shuttling the one filled cream pitcher between tables). The cook emerged from the kitchen and started delivering food to tables. People dug into their pockets for some small change to break the bills in the register. An informal rule was instituted: if you help yourself to a refill on coffee, you have to offer to top off everyone else.

Still, it was obvious that the situation was dire, and that without intervention, it was just going to continue spiraling downhill. The cook and waiter decided that it was important not to give people a bad experience, so they made the decision to do a strategic retreat and regroup: they closed the door. No further breakfast would be served, the existing tables would get taken care of (they comped everyone, but I’m pretty sure everyone left a reasonable amount of money (in small bills… :) ) anyways), and they’d use the next 45 minutes (until the end of the parade) to regroup for lunch. My last view of the diner was seeing the cook standing on the roof (no, I didn’t have to talk him down, he was just getting a breather and watching the parade).

I wish I could’ve hung out to see how lunch went, I really want to know if they managed to get their game on and closed out the day without any more fiascos. I hope neither the cook nor the waiter got in trouble for this, since they were seriously giving their best, but it was just overwhelming them in a way I’ve rarely seen a place get overwhelmed.

I also have to wonder where the owner and/or manager were, since in the end, it’s their responsibility. If the staffing issue couldn’t get addressed in time, it might’ve been better to give everyone the day off and not have customers exposed to the comedy of errors that this became.

In the end, I don’t have many complaints. My breakfast was decent (my homefries and Carol’s french toast were very good, although the pancakes were just run-of-the-mill), it ended up not costing us much, and we were thoroughly entertained.

3 Responses

  1. Anonymous 26 May 2008 at 09:08 #

    just so you know i eat at this diner every thursday, it is a close nit comunity of people, and for the record it is clam cakes and chowder and the corn cakes are called johnny cakes and they do serve them on occasion and as for diners go in ri i wouldnt want to spend my thursday anywhere else but the wickford diner

  2. Anonymous 07 Aug 2008 at 12:57 #

    I would like to agree with the above statement by anonymous… I work in Wickford and enjoy lunch at all of the local diners. Most afternoons there are always two people working, and sometimes it gets busy, but this diner is all about being friendly and not just pushing food out to get you to leave. If the person who posted “Offbeat Eats” doesn’t like the way the diner is, then don’t come back to Wickford. There are plenty of tourists as it is. I have numerous friends of the family that have worked there over the years, as well as the owner. I will continue to eat their as much as possible, and if its a little busy with a slow turnaround rate, thats fine with me.

  3. kaszeta 07 Aug 2008 at 13:12 #

    The original poster steps in….

    Hey, since you asked, I’m not really a tourist. Half of my family is from the area, I’ve probably spent years of my life in the area, and I was there since I make it a point to visit my grandfather in his nursing home on holidays. Wickford certainly has changed over the years…

    I’m not claiming that the Wickford diner is a bad place, but that a certain combination events made that particular day a bit of a mess. The staff realized it and was working hard on fixing it, and I can’t say that in the end I felt slighted, and I’m actually a bit disappointed that I haven’t been back yet to give them another try.

    Since writing this almost a year and a half ago, I’ve since heard from both the waiter and the owner, both of whom got a chuckle out of this review.

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